Former President Geroge W. Bush participated in a Q&A moderated by CNBC's Melissa Lee at the SALT conference in Las Vegas. The conference is organized by Skybridge Capital. Anthony Scarmucci, the managing director of Skybridge, shot to fame when he asked President Obama at a town hall meeting, "When are you going to stop whacking Wall Street."
It was clear from the start of the session, that this was a different Bush than the one that led the country. He was jocular, relaxed, and sprinkling his talk with four letter words.
He introduced himself by saying "I am a simple retired guy - a Medicare guy." The reference to being a Medicare Guy seemed to Bush's way of interjecting himself into the Medicare debate started by Congressman Ryan.
When asked what he has been doing since leaving office, Bush answered, "Much to alot of people's surprise, I wrote a book, "Decision Points." Many thought I could not even read. The book tells what it is like to be in the eye of the storm. I am hoping that it will be a data point when the objective historians show up. It is too soon for my presidency to be judged. Short term history can not be objective. I did not write this book to be judgemental or tell the critics they are wrong and I am right."
He joked about the speech that he was giving, "I am committing white collar crime. I am giving speeches for money."
Since this was a financial conference, he was asked about TARP. Bush said, "I am a free market guy. It was a very hard decision for me to authorize Tarp. My buddies in Midland,Texas probably think that I was drinking the cool aid in Washington."
"When you run an organization, you need to bring in people that you trust and delegate. Hank Paulson knew the markets. I was a history major in college. I did not know what a TED (treasury/euro dollar) spread. He and Bernanke were urging me to commit Tarp unless I wanted to create a Depression. Growth in the economy would not be enough."
His recipe for economic growth is: tax policy, certainty in regulation, free trade, and a rational immigration policy, "It does not make sense for us to educate a child from India and then tell him he has to go back.
The nuclear treaty that he signed with India was about more than nuclear safety. "India has 350 million people and all of them are middle class. We want to be friends with them."
He decries the "isms" -isolationism and protectionism. "Americans often wonder why we should carry about a fight in Afghanistan. Isolationism leads to stagnation. We should not fear India and China."
America will triumph because "our entrepreneurial spirit is strong."
He talked about the difficulties in arranging meetings with the Hu Jingtao. When he met with Putin, it was two on two -the leaders and translators. When he met with the Jingtao, it was 7 on 7. "While I usually had more on his mind than table seating arrangements, one time I arranged for the Chinese leader to sit between Condi and me. Then I got the chance to ask him what keeps him up at night. Another terrorist attack keeps me up at night. Jingtao's worry was 25 million new jobs for his people. His answer gave us alot of information. He was worried about the unemployed people in his country because it could lead to government instability."
Being a former oil man, he could not resist saying a few words about oil. 'It is interesting that the price of oil has gone from $20 a barrel to $ 150 a barrel and there is no inflation. I suspect it has to do with conservation. After the price hikes from 1973-1979, conservation gained."
He also credited the low inflation to "the Chinese goods coming into the country. Americans have more goods available at lower prices."
"Some parts of the country like to demagogue oil. We need to find as much oil as we can. We have the technology to search for it in the deep waters. I know about the green stuff. We still need to extract gas from the shale."
"Our energy policy is backwards. When I became President, they told me that we had to subsidize the heat for the elderly in New England. I shook my head and asked what about the old people suffering in the heat in Texas."
"In Marcellus Shale, the critics are opposing the exploration of gas because of the polluting the water. We have been fracking in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana for years, it has not polluted the water."
The hardest decision he made was "to use taxpayer money to bail out Wall Street." "Paulson, who I think the world of and Bernanke, who had worked for me in the White House before I appointed him Fed chief, told me that I had to do the bailout or the country would face a Depression. If I had not done something and there was a depression, I would have been criticized because I did not do something to prevent a depression."
"People said TARP is a four letter word. Duh, I know that," said an obviously irritated Bush. He reminded, "We created instant liquidity."
Congress originally passed authorization for an asset auction. 'It was easier to get the vote the second time after the market had fallen $1.3 trillion."
When asked if Tarp was a bait and switch on the original plan, he said that Paulson said the auction would not work. Things were freezing so quickly, In midst of crisis can't take Gallup polls or care if people like me."
"Overregulation will dampen the economy."
While he said he did not want to criticize his successor because "he did not like when former presidents criticized him, he proceed to say, "I am worried about the Boeing case in South Carolina that I read about in the Wall Street Journal on my ipad (I have gone modern). It is a sign of the pendulum swinging too far. Capital flows not regulatory bodies should make decisions."
When asked how sure was he when he was making the decisions about the financial crisis, Bush said, "not very sure. We were not very sure. Paulson and the really smart people that he attracted to the treasury felt that it was the right thing to do."
Bush explained that the financial crisis was not the only thing that he had on his mind. "Presidents do not deal with a single issue at a time. The job is complex. At the same time, I was dealing with Hurricane Ike, Georgia invading Russia, homeland threats, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The result is what counts. Bush said, "No depression occurred. That is what matters."
The one mistake that he made during the financial meltdown had to do with the Lehman bankruptcy. "The administration should have more clearly explained why the Lehman bankruptcy went down. Why it was different than Bear Stearns, which had a buyer. Barclays left in the middle of buying Lehman. But this was not a presidential responsibility but the Treasury or Federal Reserve."
He reiterated, "TARP prevented the dominoes falling."
It was hard for him to leave a part owner of General Motors Citicorp,. "But I didn't curl up in the psychological fetal position. Sometimes, I did think why me, but not for long. Nothing more pathetic than self pity. You learn in life, sometimes things happen, you just have to deal."
"September 11 changed my presidency and redefined out lives. I am afraid it is becoming like Pearl Harbor day."
"The Bush doctrine is you go on the offense and deal with threats before they happen."
"On 9/11, my most important responsibility was to protect the homeland."
He talked about the capture of Khalid, the mastermind of 9/11 and "the killer of Danny Pearl." "By the way, Danny Pearl made a great statement of courage, 'My grandfather is a Jew, my father is a Jew, and I am a Jew."
According to Bush, "Khalid said, I will talk to you when I get my lawyer in New York. Al Queadawas already trained to resist the standard interrogation techniques. When I was presented with 13 alternatives, the first thing I asked was 'is it legal?" I was sworn in to uphold the laws of the land. I immediately took 2 techniques off the table, but left waterboarding. The Khalid information saved alot of lives. If we had not found the information, as president, I would have been responsible for the loss of lives." Bush was the most emotional during this section of the speech.
When he was told that Obama wanted to talk to him (about Osama's death), "I was eating souffle at Rice Restaurant with Laura and two buddies. I excused myself and went home to take the call. Obama simply said "Osama Bin Laden is dead. I was not overjoyed. I did not act out of hatred but to extract judgement."
After Obama described the mission in detail, Bush told him "Good call."
"The intelligence services deserve alot of credit. They built a mosaic of information, piece by piece."
"I met Seal Team 6 in Afghanistan. They are awesome, skilled, talented, and brave. I said, "I hope you have everything you need. One member said to me, "We need your permission to go into Pakistan and kick ass. One of the last things that I did as President was visit them in Norfolk Beach, Virginia,"
"The guy is dead. That is good. Osama's death is a great victory in the war on terror.He was held up as a leader. Long term solution is to promote a better ideology, which is freedom. Freedom is universal." People who do not look like us want freedom just as much. The relatives of Condileeza Rice over 100 years wanted freedom. It is only when you do not have hope in a society that you join a suicide bomber team."
"One of the most amazing movements of my presidency was when Koizimu, the Japanese Prime Minister, said after 9/11. We stand shoulder to should with the United States. My dad quit college to fight our enemy the Japanese. Now they are our ally. It is because Japan instituted Japan style democracy in 1945. 60 years later the enemy becomes a friend."
"Something will happen in the Middle East, but not in my lifetime. Democracy takes a long time. I only have 20 years left."
"I did not worry about bloodshed in the Far East -Vietnam, Korea. The democracy that took hold in South Korea stabilized the region but it took ? years. Truman was excoriated for his decision, but it was a courageous decision that benefitted all mankind. Democracy takes a long time."
"In the Middle East, young people gave a damn about what happened in their country. Laura and I want to help change the Middle East by helping women. It will be a long time before there are open free elections. The established parties will steamroll over the young activists. There are good things happening in Tunisia and Iraq. We need someone safer than the dictators that we put in place."
While not getting the intelligence briefings any more, he believes that "we are safer."
"I was mocked for my appearance, religion and the way I spoke. I was called Nazi, war criminal etc. I do not give a damn about polls except the one that counts election day. If you chase polls, then you are willing to forgo principals."
"It was much harder to hear the criticism as a son about the guy that I love. I was mean to reporters that wrote not nice things about my dad."
Laura helped him cope during the crisis. "Laura was awesome, unbelievable, and a source of comfort. When I came up from the Oval Office, she did not ask why I said dead or alive."
Reid's criticism rankled him."The Majority Leader of the Senate, the senior Senator from Nevada called me a liar. It will discourage people from going into public office. But I did not respond to my critics because it is not what presidents do. I did my best. You worry about the effect on the people you love - my daughters and wife. How do I feel? I am pissed off. But I did not let it get me down. I did not have time. I was too busy solving problems. By the end of the day, I wanted to go to bed."
"My favorite president, after my dad, was Abraham Lincoln. He was belittled while in office. The difference is that modern presidents have to face a 24 hour news cycle."
"In my book, I say that the media "contributes to the death spiral of decency." "Loudest screamers gets the attention. Nameless bloggers are not held accountable."
"I still is the best system in the world. I love our democracy."
"It is not a sacrifice to serve a cause that you care about."
"Eight years is plenty. Time to move on. It was a honor to serve."
Bush now gets to do neat things. " I was able to ride my mountain bike with serviceman that lost limbs in combat. Chris Seif was on the back of my bike."
"I do miss Air Force One. the deserts from the White House pastry chef, and being Commander in Chief. I miss saluting men and women who volunteer to serve our country."
"I do like being out the spotlight. I am not addicted to it. Fame does not mean much."
"I plan to influence policy not politics."
He made fun of people saying that he is shaping his legacy. "Iam not shaping my legacy. My legacy is shaped. The critics can pound sand. I will not be around."
"The office of the President is more important than one individual. I brought honor and dignity to the office."
"Now I want to live life and contribute to the improvement of mankind. I am not going to be a bloviator."
He will pursue a freedom agenda. He has established his museum and institute at Southern Methodist. "The archives include 25000 boxes and 190 million emails. I am the first email president. Clinton had some emails although not any from me."
"Part of the museum will include the archives of dissidents to inspire future dissidents. The work of dissidents will be memorialized forever. "The Dalia Lama came to visit last week and gave me the Tibetan constitution with his handwritten notes."